Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for July, 2008

Struise Browers: The best brewer in the world? Pure Disney, Belgian beer expert Tim Webb says’s best-beer statistics are always interesting. Often, I agree. But when they name: Struise Brouwers, a brewery in Belgium I’ve never heard of as the “best brewer in the world,” I couldn’t help myself, I was skeptical. Basically, the little contract brewery got the most votes in a system Ratebeer uses that gives more weight to expert beer raters. Still? The best?

So I asked the ultimate English language expert: Tim Webb, author of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium series, published by the English Campaign for Real Ale. He’s English, has traveled widely in Belgium for years and really knows his Belgian beer. Here’s Tim’s reply:

I am deeply disappointed in the ratebeer guys.

I appreciate what they are trying to do and they are very good at helping to put beer on the map, which is an excellent thing. However, they nearly buried Westvleteren with the ludicrous claim that they produced ‘the best beer in the world’ (shouldn’t that have been ‘pretty good beers from the world’s cutest sounding brewery?)

Now they nominate a brewing firm that has not even invested in a brewery (and anyway is only be a couple of years old) to be the very finest producers of our favoured beverage anywhere on Earth. I mean is that likely? I think not.
Do you get to gain great expertise that quickly? I hope not.

All adolescents get crushes – it’s part of growing up.

‘A Brewery that a bunch of beer drinkers are most impressed by recently’ would be fine, no problem. Best brewers in the world? Give me a break. Covering it could make a good piece on the limits to the value of opinions but PLEASE don’t add to the embarasment by giving this naieve glee-chant unearned credibility.

On the factual side, Struise Brouwers is a switched-on bunch of business-like young beer makers and if they can carry on their early promise may yet become great brewery owners, as opposed to interesting beer makers. I do not know of the extent of their training – they could have masters degrees at one of the Ghent brewing schools or be home brewers with a passion, I have no idea which.

They began by brewing several rather dull beers at Caulier – a wheat beer, an amber and a blond as I recall. They moved the operation to Deca after De Ranke moved out to a brewery of their own. Then out of nowhere they pulled out some high strength beers with an aged element.

I doubt their beers have all been oak-aged. At least one that stayed on the market was badly faulty – flat as a pancake – and one given to me by them to take away from Zythos Beer Festival exploded a month or two later with all the usual suspects asssitings its lava flow into the sink. On the other hand, the rest I have tried have been a a spectrum from pretty good to seriously interesting. If you want to be an opinion maker you’re supposed to act responsibly.

They are good enough for one beer to feature in ‘100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die’, which I have written with Joris Pattyn and which will appear on from 1st September this year. Only two other non-brewery-owners get that privilege – with Senne brewery getting three listed BTW.

They are certainly on a roll in the U..S by the sound of it, but then yours is a nation that has at times raved about Fantome and Michelob. In my view their elevation to the heavenly choirs is premature, and more the expression of exuberant enthusiasm rather a studied observation of excellence.

I am slightly biased by my view that the whole concept of a ‘best beer / brewery’ is pure Disney and very very American. If someone could explain to me how you judge Keesmann Herren Pils in a heads up against,say, Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek, Nogne O Imperial Stout and Saison Dupont I might take the concept more seriously but till then I am afraid I will put it in the ‘Yankee Tosh’ file along with the latest efforts to get all sentimental about Bud.

Tim W

By the way, Tim says his next edition of the Good Beer Guide to Belgium comes out in June, 2009. Order the current volume at

Posted on Tuesday, July 29th, 2008
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Budweiser American Ale rolls out next month: An interview with the brewer

Budweiser American Ale: 5.2 percent, 25-28 IBUs, mild taste.

Budweiser, America’s Ale.?

Hey…here’s a sodden thought (to copy the late, lamented Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist)…could this ale coming from Anheuser-Busch in September truly become America’s ale, just like Bass Pale Ale or Courage Directors in the UK, a mild, amber companion to Budweiser, the American Lager?

Just got off the phone a short time ago with Eric Beck, the A-B staff brewmaster in charge of the project. Bare bones: The beer’s an amber ale, 5.2 percent ABV. IBUs (International Bitterness Units) 25 to 28. It’s made with two row pale barley and caramel malt. Bittering hops are Palisade, aroma hops spicy Saaz and Willamettes and piney, citrusy Cascades. It’s also dry hopped with Cascades. Every ingredient is American. No foreign ingredients. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted on Monday, July 28th, 2008
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A party at City Beer in San Francisco held a sort-of private party Sunday night at City Beer Store after closing and the 25 people attending were asked by founder Joe Tucker to bring a “special beer.”

Talk about pressure. Ratebeer is one of the gigantic beer Web sites, the one where posters rated Westvleteren Triple the best beer in the world in 2005, causing a media frenzy and causing the Trappist brewery to clamp down on sales.

So what beer to bring? No way was I gonna bring one of my aging, bottle-conditioned barleywines or my 1987 bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale. I decided to bring a brand new 750 ml bottle of Ommegeddon II, the new, second edition of this 8 percent beer from Brewery Ommegang, bottle conditioned with brettanomyces, wild yeast.

Nice contribution, but other guests brought wilder stuff. Those invited were mostly regular beer raters for the site. For example, one guy, Chad, who lives in San Francisco, brought two Japanese craft beers: Hakusekikan Dual Porter and Hakusekikan Super Vintage 2000, a Japanese, aged, barely wine and oh yes, a 12 oz. bouttle of St. Arnold’s Christmas Ale.

One of the most unusual beers came frm Steve Cummins, who brought a specially bottled version of one of the most excellent sour beers, made with brettanyomyces and who knows what else from. Valley Brewing (Stockton)

Another, rater, Jason, who also lives in SF brought Alpine Shame On You and Alesmith Decadence.

But what about Joe Tucker? Well, he brought a six-pack: is basically a two-man operation, Joe, who lives in the Bay Area, and Josh Oakes, who now lives in Miami. About the only change they’ve done in recent years is move the site to a larger server farm in Virginia to provide better service to the East Coast and Europe, Tucker says

They also put out a book in 2006, The Beer Guide, by Josh Oakes, which listed Ratebeer ratings on literally thousands of beers. They’ve also added a “shelf-talker” service. Retailers can download the talkers, which have details about a specific beer, post them next to the beer to boost sales, Tucker says.

How busy is “We’re averaging 5 million page views a month,” Tucker says.

Sometimes, their ratings can drive me crazy, but then, they’re hard to dispute. Right now their best beers in the world by popular choice are: Westvleteren Tripel and Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout from Three Floyds in Munster, IN. Agree? Post a comment, let’s talk.

Then there’s their Best Brewer in the World:

De Struise Brouwers and head brewer Urbain Coutteau. Huh? Sez whom?

PHOTOS; TOP: The crowd at City Beer just before the party began.

Below: Joe Tucker of with his sixer.

Posted on Monday, July 28th, 2008
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Beer of the Week: Linden Street Common Lager

Note: This is an updated version of my Beer of the Week column that ran in the Oakland Tribune/Contra Costa Times in April. Since I wrote the column, there is some news.

1. Adam Lamoreaux, the principal partner at Linden Street and the head brewer, has a new beer. It’s Black Bottom Lager and it has just been brewed at Drake’s while the final installation of the brewery at Linden Street is completed. It will be on tap this afternoon at Linden Street’s regular Friday afternoon open house barbecue, that begins today at 4 p.m. and runs for about four hours.

2. Next Friday Aug. 1, will be the last weekly open house and barbecue. The crowds have gotten too large; we’ve gone through a lot of beer, Adam says. So beginning next week, the open house will be held only on the first Friday of each month. After next Friday, the next open house will be Friday, Sept. 5, 2008. Hint: Go there today and try the beer.

And finally, the bureaucratic update is that Linden Street is still waiting for the city of Oakland and PG&E to sign off on expanded natural gas service to power the boiler in the brewery. Adam told me PG&E was dragging out the process. I called Tamar Sarkissian in PG&E’s media department, who checked. She said PG&E was waiting for the city of Oakland to sign off…”There were certain steps that needed to be taken….” she said.


Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2008
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List of winners for 2008 Taste of Terroir

1. Most Innovative Pairing: La Rochelle Winery & Campo di Bocce
2006 Pinot Noir, Classic Clones, Arroyo Seco paired with Squash Blossom Tamale
Chef: Michael Wogen, Campo di Bocce
Winemakers: Steven Mirassou and Tom Statz, La Rochelle Winery
2. Best Expression of Local Ingredients: Livermore Valley Cellars & Faz Restaurant
2006 “Caboose” Zinfandel, Livermore Valley paired with Honey Mustard Rubbed Pork Tenderloin on Rosemary Foccacia with Shallot Butter, Balsamic Plum Chutney and Brentwood Corn
Chef: Dolly Jacoby, Faz Restaurant
Winemaker: Tim Sauer, Livermore Valley Cellars
3. Judge’s Best: Wente Vineyards & The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
2005 Nth Degree Merlot, Livermore Valley paired with Braised Duck, Shelling Bean Salad, Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Arugula, Lemon Summer Truffle Vinaigrette
Chef: Arthur Wall, The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
Winemaker: Karl Wente, Wente Vineyards
4. People’s Choice: Mitchell Katz Winery & Palm Event Center
Duck Bratwurst on House-Made Caraway Bun with Cranberry and Stone Ground Mustard Glaze
Chef: John Jackson and Alex Olson, Palm Event Center
Winemaker: Mitchell Katz, Mitchell Katz Winery
5. Outstanding Dish: Palm Event Center
Duck Bratwurst on House-Made Caraway Bun with Cranberry and Stone Ground Mustard Glaze
Chef: Alex Olson, Palm Event Center
6. Outstanding Wine: Murrieta’s Well
2006 White Meritage, Livermore Valley
Winemaker: Phil Wente, Murrieta’s Well

Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2008
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Oddbits…Bistro IPA fest, barrel-aged beer at City Beer…

Oddbits and short takes…Mark your calendars, ladies and gents…The Bistro’s 11th annual India Pale Ale Festival is Saturday, Aug. 9. Proprietor Vic Kralj will have over 50 IPAs on tap. There will be live music and barbecue all day. Starts at 11 a.m. Ends around sunset. The Bistro’s at 1001 B St. in the most beautiful block in downtown Hayward….

Meanwhile, City Beer in San Francisco’s gearing up for a barrel-aged beer series, Begins Thursday, Aug. 14, ends Sunday Aug. 24. Beers will include Green Flash Super Freak, Bourbon Barrel-Aged Angel’s Share from Lost Abbey… Also, City Beer will premier Stone’s upcoming Vertical Epic: 8/8/8. These are strong beers, meant to improve and age for a decade or more…

Random thoughts and short halves….Don Russell, who writes the Joe Sixpack column every Friday in the Philadelphia Daily News:

Howcum beer-related Web sites check your age? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2008
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Final notes on Livermore’s Taste of Terroir

Grand time at Taste of Terroir last night. Those of you who showed up — it was sold out at 400 people — are probably still dreaming of the Palm Event Center’s duck bratwurst with homemade caraway bun and house made mustard. They brought it last year with those wild boar sliders and they did it again. Kudos. Consistently surprising and top-notch cuisine from an event center.

I was one of the event judges and the dish so impressed and satisfied us that we created a new category on the spot — Best Dish. We also created a Best Wine category and awarded it to the White Meritage from Murrieta’s Well. In a sea of flabby, oak-covered whites, this Bordeaux blend of Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc stood out with its vibrant nose, playful palate and crisp acidity.

The on-the-spot categories was our way of recognizing award-worthy wines and dishes from among the 16 entries that simply did not work as pairings. We were surprised and disappointed to see basic pairing rules — matching or complementary textures, flavors and aromas — ignored, and chances taken that shouldn’t have been. Mango with Merlot? We didn’t understand.

I will say, however, that when they tried, it showed. Executive Chef Arthur Wall of the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards scored our Judges Best for his rustic play on the elegant braised lamb and green beans. An eternally comforting dish with a summer spin, it had crunch, savory flavors and aromas. The 11 percent Cabernet in Karl Wente’s Nth Degree Merlot — with its lovely Earl Gray tea aroma and Karl’s signature Hungarian oak finish– provided the tannin and acidity necessary to round out the often difficult-to-pair Merlot. Everything worked. They improved each other. We desperately wanted seconds.

When I wasn’t sequestered in the Judges’ chambers, I took a peek at the event layout. Always a pleasurable set up. The lush patio opens into the event center, where each winery-restaurant team had a station. The dessert room delivered again, though it was not as grand and chocolate-laden as last year. Perhaps they tossed too many brownies in 2007. Who knows. I noted more party fouls — that’s broken stemware — this year. I was only outside the Judges’ room for 10-15 minutes but I heard about three glasses drop in that time. No, none of them were mine.

Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2008
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A beer made with ancient yeast and New Belgium and Elysian cut a deal

Oddbits… the craft beer world is churning today, as somebody once said, “there are a thousand stories in the naked city…”. Anyway at the top of the heap… Fossil Fuels Wheat Beer, a beer brewed with 45-million-year-old yeast is about ready to hit pubs in the Bay Area and beyond.

Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it? But it’s truth. The company is Fossil Fuels Brewing Co. The beer is a wheat. It’s being brewed at Kelley Brewing, the Manteca brewpub. Here’s the short version of this unusual story. Microbiologist Raul Cano, founder of the Environmental Biotechnology Institute at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, discovered several yeast strains in the gut of a bee caught in tropical tree sap that turned to amber about 40 million years ago.

Working with another scientist, Chip Lambert, of Fremont, they isolated and revived the yeast. “They are similar to Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used today for brewing,” Lambert says.
Last summer, a friend Peter Hackett, of Stumptown Brewery, Guerneville, made a test batch of pale ale using the ancient yeast side by side with a pale ale made with modern yeast.
There were some striking differences, Lambert says. The test batch had an almost Belgian note with hints of clove, he says.

They formed a company, Fossil Fuels Brewing and cut a deal with Coast Range Brewing, Gilroy. Unfortunately, Coast Range went belly up earlier this year and filed for bankruptcy. “We lost a lot of money,” Lambert says.
Now, the fledgling company’s hooked up with Joe Kelley of Kelley Brothers. He has brewed a wheat beer which he told Lambert is the most incredible beer he’s ever brewed. The initial launch is this Saturday afternoon at Kelley Brothers. This is informal, Lambert said, not a big deal.

The plan is to get the beer – it’s going to be keg only – into pubs around the Bay Area. Lambert said he’s gotten a lot of interest. Interesting, huh. I’m intrigued. Stay tuned.

Oh yes, this was going to be a bunch of short items. OK – item two: Elysian Brewing, a small, but mighty trio of brewpubs in Seattle, has cut a no-money-exchanged deal with New Belgium, Fort Collins, CO. Elysian co-owner and champion brewer Dick Cantwell is brewing his Night Owl Pumpkin Ale at New Belgium right now for distribution in the Rocky Mountain West and on eastward.

New Belgium plans to brew speciality beers, probably starting with Eric’s Ale, a sour peach, Belgian-style ale at Elysian for distribution in the Pacific Northwest and possibly Northern California, New Belgium’s Brian Simpson says. The cooperative agreement was cut between Cantwell and New Belgium CEO Kim Jordan, Simpson said.

Eric’s Ale, by the way, is on tap at a few places around the Bay Area, including La Trappe in San Francisco. If you ever see it, try it. It’s stunning, started out as an experimental beer three years ago, concocted by New Belgium brewer Eric Salazar. Now it’s becoming one of New Belgium’s regular “wood” beers, as in aged in wood. And to think, we could be drinking Bud Light.

Posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2008
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Corrections, KQED Pub Crawl caption, stength of Russian River Blind Pig

Correction time.  The caption on our KQED Belgian beer pub crawl story posted Wednesday (July 23, 2008) had a couple of mistakes.  Here’s the photo again and the corrected caption.

(Left to right clockwise) Paul Depaschalis  of Orinda, Joe Houk, of South San Francisco, Alembic server Angela Hart,  beer blogger William Brand, Steven White, of Montara, Roger Wong, of Walnut Creek, Bob Niehuser, of South San Francisco and Keith Anvick, of San Carlos, (not pictured) toast at the Alembic on Haight Street on Saturday, July 12, 2008, in San Francisco. Niehuser’s wife won a bid on KQED for a Belgian beer pub crawl and gave it to her husband for his birthday. (Jane Tyska/The Oakland Tribune)

Also, in my Oakland Tribune/Contra Costa Times/San Mateo County Times/Hayward Daily Review column yesterday (Wednesday, July 23, 2008) I listed the wrong alcohol percentage for Russian River’s Blind Pig India Pale Ale. It’s 6 percent. Ken Gross was the first of many to point it out. Got the most excellent Pig confused with Pliny the Elder, which I also wrote about.

Live far away, can’t find my weekly column? Shoot me an e-mail at and I’ll add you to my mailing list.

Posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2008
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Are you a beer snob?

Are you a beer snob? And, if not, what mass production beer do you like?

The question was posed to a panel discussing Belgian beer at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last week. It came at the end of the session, where participants included Aaron Porter, co-founder of The Trappist in Oakland, Rick Mitchell, owner of Luka’s Oakland and Mike Azzalini, owner of La Trappe, San Francisco, Beer Chef Bruce Paton and Sinead Carey, area sales manager for Star Brand Imports, a beer importer.

I loved Bruce Paton’s instant reply: “Absolutely and none.” Some of the others hedged. Some did not. Aaron Porter thought about it and said, “I drink a Pacifico once in a while, but I guess I’m a snob as well”

Sinead, whose company is owned by Heineken, said she discovered Heineken in college and sticks with it. Mike Azzalini said he’s no beer snob, but his answer showed he’s seriously intrigued by Belgian beer and has very little interest in American lagers.

“I get a ton of Belgians coming into the restaurant,” he said. “They’ll sit down and talk and they know so much. They’ve mostly been drinking since they were 14 and they have family members with cases of Lambic in the cellar aging five or six years.” He said he considers each conversation a learning experience.

Are you a beer snob? It’s a fascinating question and it’s totally loaded with pre-judgment. Let’s face it, nobody who loves beer wants to be called a beer snob. It’s kind of an ultimate putdown. And the idea causes a real dilemma.

  • On the one hand, I’m someone who loves beer – the great, non-aristocratic, democratic drink, much loved by the masses, of which you and I may or may not be a part.
  • But, in truth, I really can’t stand the light lagers ,which are America’s drink. In fact I was indifferent to beer until I got my first glass of a decent German lager at age 19. Regular American beer to me was about like Wonder Bread. Great, to make dough balls with when you’re 8 years old, but fairly tasteless.

Wonder Bread was a bastardization of a noble product. Light American lager and especially the light versions of light lager are a kind of distortion of a noble beverage.

Wonder Bread emerged over time as bakeries got larger and distribution increased. Big bakeries found a light, doughy bread, pumped full of air with chemicals to retard spoilage, was about perfect. And in the 40s and 50s, they pushed the bread with lots of TV commercials.

Sound familiar. Wonder Bread got buried by whole wheat, just like light lager is going to get buried by beer with real flavor. In fact, in my humble opinion, the big brewers themselves are gonna’ do the job. Look at sales of the Coors Blue Moon brands – they’re booming. Coors and Budweiser are already becoming “our grandfathers’ beer.”

So am I a beer snob? Not really. I like beer with a full flavor profile. I like beer that’s interesting and provides a taste experience. The real beer snobs are people who cling to their light lager and eschew everything else.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

Photo: North Coast Le Merle Saison in the glass. Not an industrial lager.

Posted on Thursday, July 24th, 2008
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